It’s been over 20 years since Google launched us all on a journey that transformed the availability of information, but their guiding principles still remain the same: a laser-sharp focus on the user experience, offering us the most useful information, while being relevant to our needs. These three components have been central when it comes to motivating consumers to start their research for products & services on Google, and brands have taken note by trying to drive qualified traffic to their sites through ad-campaigns and optimisation. But competition has grown exponentially, customer acquisition costs have increased, with margins also eroding.
Shoppers have also changed the ways they are interacting with online channels. Google isn’t their first online starting point anymore, as social media channels have risen to popularity when it comes to capturing consumer engagement. In fact, a recent study by PwC revealed that a quarter of UK consumers now regularly use social media networks for inspiration when considering a purchase. It’s not just for ideas either; many shoppers are now making direct purchases of shoppable content via Instagram, Facebook or other platforms.
In short, the way consumers are shopping online has changed, and brands are now having to look to optimising new consumer touchpoints like onsite search systems, social channels and connected site content in order to capture consumer attention. The role of visual merchandising, supported by intelligent onsite search, navigation and personalisation features has become central to helping retailers and brands bring this to life. Creating memorable and distinctive experiences for shoppers is a core requirement and expectation of modern-day customers, who are shopping around the clock in online markets that are saturated with content and brand competition. Brands who are standing out are the ones working on optimising their online experiences to emulate the rich and exciting ones that have always existed instore - using technology as a way to help them create a striking experience that consumers will love. For many though, achieving this is still a big challenge.
So, as an online retailer, what do you need to consider when ramping up your online shopping experience so that it makes users interested in what you have to offer? And how can you help customers search for and find what they want onsite with ease and excitement? Here are a few points to consider:
• Combine Search & Browsing - In the past, search engines only powered the search box, often placed at the upper right-hand corner of your site. However, this often becomes disconnected from the rest of a site leading to a confusing experience when using both navigational elements and search as part of the session. Instead, look for search technology that can be trained to provide both a stellar experience for shoppers who are searching for a specific product using the search box, as well as those who are looking for inspiration across your main navigation and campaign pages. Connecting the dots between the two can make the browsing experience much more impactful and relevant.
• Use technology smartly and humans creatively - With the potential to assist creative workers, remove administrative work and empower the skills of your visual merchandising teams, consider how automation can better support your business. By helping shoppers find exciting and relevant items quickly, your intuitive search systems can contribute a lot by automating the experience on your site for various traffic sources. Introduce agile capabilities to allow your staff to curate search results and navigational elements for shoppers in an in-tune way that reflects current trends and promotions based on channel, traffic source, region or country – this nimble and creative approach can help your brand to differentiate itself against the competition by revealing relevant results in an optimal way for the right customer segment.
Additionally, set up sound merchandising strategies based on a blend of products with high-profit margins, relevant products and products that you need to shift as a brand. This way, an onsite search system will automatically showcase products that your customers will like, whilst aligning their search intent with your key products and business goals.
In this respect, it’s important to remember that machines excel at identifying patterns in huge volumes of data and drawing conclusions, while humans are the experts at understanding strategy, brand image and aesthetics under fast-changing circumstances. Used together when optimising the onsite search & browsing experience, they can be game-changing, since the skillsets of each complement each other and can set trends that inspire shoppers to purchase. A good rule of thumb is using automation for your long-tail and applying manual fine-tuning and visual curation to your top 10 to 20 pages with the highest traffic.
• Make use of your Data – In every conversation I have, customers and prospects agree that automation and data are important to become more effective. Successful companies are not only providing the “classic” product attributes like product description, price or inventory to the search engine, but also enriched information such as occasion, style, product reviews, product returns, click-through data, conversion or freshness scores. This enables sophisticated strategies that can be tuned and tailored by category or location on the site.
• Make onsite search more personal – Successful brands apply personalisation not only to product recommendations but also to the search & browsing elements of the site including promotions or content. Once a customer is on your site searching for a specific product, then their intent to purchase is there, and helping them to this purchase is your priority in the same way that it is for an in-store assistant. With this in mind, enable your onsite search to deliver a personal experience in a similar fashion and guide the customer based on the knowledge available. This includes providing past purchases, affinities and current session information including from which channel or campaign the customer is currently coming from. Allow shoppers to ask questions that will bring them to relevant results and don’t let any of their unintended errors or unique approaches to semantics ruin their journey. Also, be sure to make your search functionality accommodating to the individual quirks of your shoppers. If someone is shopping for their children for example, then personalise the experience around their current needs rather than their past browsing behaviours. Looking at families or households instead of individuals will help you to better target the experience.
• Ignore artificial intelligence (AI) at your peril – This technology is here to stay (and grow exponentially across the online retail sector) and is well worth adding into the mix. Not only does this technology possess an incredible scope to accelerate and enhance visual merchandising by analysing large data sets to understand and predict patterns, but it also helps to make recommendations that shoppers actually want, or even discover what they want. In addition to this, new AI-technologies and machine learning algorithms are enabling consumers to search using images and voice – a trend that is taking off dramatically thanks to voice search tech like Google Home, Amazon Alexa and visual search apps.
With these points in mind, what does the future of search look like? Well, there’s definitely a strong evolution in how technology is powering the experience, and AI, in particular, will transform the way that brands recommend products to their customers in 2019 and 2020, as retailers seek to capitalise on emerging trends such as visual and voice search.
The strongest retailers will be those who are meeting the demands of this evolved landscape; reviewing their search capabilities and harnessing the effectiveness of automation and the creativity of humans to provide an intelligent, highly personalised and exceptional shopping experience that works well across all devices and channels. Retailers simply cannot afford not to, and given the onward march of online shopping, their competitors certainly will be.
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